11 Remembrances of Bum Phillips, 1923-2013
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I heard about Bum Phillips’s death on Friday night via a social media friend, who uploaded a classic photo—big white Stetson, powder-blue jacket—of the legendary former Houston Oilers coach to Instagram and Facebook.
She’s a Cowboys fan.
Everybody loved Bum Phillips, a man who, as the Houston Chronicle‘s David Barron wrote in his obituary, “spent half his adult life as a football coach and every waking moment as the personification of all things Texan.”
The Orange native’s death was not merely that of a football great, or a great Houstonian, but that of a great Texas icon, as surely as Willie, LBJ, or Gus McRae. As Texas Monthly‘s Joe Nick Patoski noted in 1991, Phillips was voted one of the “all-time top ten Texans” in a Houston Post poll:
…behind Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, George Bush, Nolan Ryan, and Red Adair, but ahead of Lyndon Johnson, Barbara Jordan, Willie Nelson, and Earl Campbell.
“It has been said that if Phillips and Lyndon B. Johnson walked into a room at the same time, no one would doubt that ol’ Bum was a big shot,” Brian D Sweany wrote in Texas Monthly‘s September 2002 football issue, which found Phillips at his Goliad ranch for a photo shoot with Texas Tech’s Spike Dykes and Texas A&M’s R.C. Slocum.
A mere 62 years old when he retired in the eighties—as the Chronicle‘s Dale Robertson noted, his son, former Cowboys coach and current Houston Texans defensive coodinator Wade Phillips, is already 67—Bum finished out his life as a true cowboy.
“I’ve got three places I lease,” he told Patoski. “I don’t own them. I just coached. I didn’t play. If I’da played, I’da bought them.”
Phillips and his wife, Debbie, also created a charitable foundation in 2010, with a focus on American Sign Language education and Christian Ministries.
According to the Port Arthur News, Phillips will be buried under an oak tree at his ranch. A public memorial will be held in Houston on October 29 at Lakewood Church (fittingly, a former Houston sports venue…if not quite the ‘Dome). Below, eleven sides of Bum, from all across the Internet:
LUV YA BLUE
John Clayton of ESPN wrote that the Oilers’ rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers was like Ali-Frazier. Except—sigh—Joe Frazier got to win one.
As the Chronicle‘s Robertson suggested, Phillips, who coached the Oilers from 1975-1980, “remains the only coach in these parts, or probably any parts, who got to experience back-to-back season-ending defeats that would be followed the same night by back-to-back standing-room-only crowds of cheering fans. Imagine that juxtaposed against the current angst about the Texans’ failures:
It was as much Luv ya Bum as it was Luv ya Blue in 1978-79 when the Oilers twice reached the NFL’s American Conference Championship Game before losing in Pittsburgh to the Steelers, a storied franchise with a roster full of Hall of Fame-bound players that won four Super Bowls during the six years Phillips was with the Oilers. But such was the special synergy between a town, a team and a homespun, tobacco-chewing, homily-spewing coach that more than 60,000 twice turned out for rowdy Astrodome pep rallies held to welcome Bum and his boys home.
THE QUOTABLE BUM
“Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next year we’re going to kick the sumbich in,” Phillips said after the 1979 season.
It was not to be. He was fired in 1980—something Houston could ultimately never forgive Oilers owner Bud Adams for, until Adams dreamt up something even worse by decamping to Tennessee.
Other classic Bum lines:
“I always thought I could coach. I just thought people were poor judges of good coaches.”
“The Dallas Cowboys may be America’s team, but the Houston Oilers are Texas’ team.”
“I don’t mind being called Bum, just as long as you don’t put a ‘you’ in front of it.”
I’m not saying Earl [Campbell] is in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in, it don’t take long to call the roll.”
SHULA OR BEAR?
Bum’s most famous (and most folksy) line is this one:
He can take his’n and beat your’n, or he can take your’n and beat his’n.
It’s most frequently cited in reference to former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula. But both the New York Times and Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News note that Phillips said it about Bear Bryant first.
THE FAMILY MAN
Wade Phillips, whose Twitter handle is @SonofBum, shared the news of his father’s passing Friday night. He was able to spend time with Bum before heading off to Kansas City for Sunday’s Texans game. He also had nice things to say about his followers’ reactions:
Bum Phillips Charities also re-posted this picture on Facebook, of Bum with his five daughters.
THE MID-COUNTY LEGEND
In 1991, TM‘s Patoski noted that Phillips was “the only head football coach to direct Texas teams on the high school, college, and professional levels.”
His high school stops included Amarillo, Jacksonville, and, most notably, Nederland and Port Neches-Groves. The two schools were playing the Mid-County Rivalry game for the ninetieth time on Friday night when Phillips passed; two years ago, he’d been honored at the game when the two cities jointly renamed a street “Bum Phillips Way.”
A Lamar and Stephen F. Austin graduate himself, Phillips was the head coach at Texas Western in 1962, as well as an assistant to Bryant at A&M, to Hayden Fry at SMU, and to Bill Yeoman at the University of Houston.
Up north, folks just couldn’t help but act a little silly about Bum being so Texan, even if they only said nice things.
The New York Times obit by Richard Goldstein led with a description of Phillips as “the homespun Texan who was caricatured as a cowboy but possessed a keen football mind.”
And Ray Didinger of CSN Philadelphia recalled a line from NFL Films president Steve Sabol, who said:
Bum looked like a square-dance caller but if you check the record, he took over a couple of bad teams and won a lot of games.
Bless their hearts.
THE 3-4 INNOVATOR
Farrar’s story actually gives full credit to Phillips as “a brilliant defensive innovator and strategist.” Not only did Phillips pioneer the most lasting, high-pressure version of the 3-4 defense, but he also gave Bryant the idea for defensive front “numbering” when he was still at the high school level.
“Anyone running a version of the 3-4 defense in the modern NFL is Bum Phillips’ offspring to some degree,” Farrar wrote.
Jene Bramel of the FootballGuys.com and the New York Times broke down the vagaries of the 3-4 in 2010, noting that the Oilers’ fearsome star pass-rushing linebacker Robert Brazile (“Dr. Doom”) “was LT before Lawrence Taylor came into the league.”
THE MOVIE STAR
Didinger and Steve Sabol played a large role in the making of this 2003 NFL Films documentary about Phillips and the Oilers, which is full of priceless archival footage, starting with the 1978 training camp in San Angelo.
IT AIN’T OVER ‘TIL THE FOOTBALL COACH SINGS?
As many fans already know, there is an opera about Phillips in the works from composer Peter Stopschinski (Grupo Fantasma, Golden Hornet Project) and librettist Kirk Lynn (Austin’s Rude Mechs theater company). Bum Phillips, All-American Opera is based on his autobiography (Bum Phillips: Cowboy, Coach, Christian), and is set for a New York premiere in March, 2014.
The creators’ goal is to:
explore how a man finds resilience and faith in failure, and how a single passion fueled an entire city’s hope. All native Texans, this dynamic team seeks to push the boundaries of what opera can be, as well as both where and for whom it is staged, while bridging a gap between arts culture and sports culture.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A TEXAN
Can you say “meme”? This essay, purportedly by Phillips, has been widely circulated online for some years. It namechecks everyone from Willie and LBJ to Michael Dell and Denton Cooley, while asking, “When was the last time you went to a person’s house in New York and you saw a big map of New York on their wall?”
When William Barrettt Travis wrote in 1836 that he would never surrender and he would have Victory or Death, what he was really saying was that he and his men were forged of a hotter fire. They weren’t your average everyday men. Well, that is what it means to be a Texan. It meant it then, and that’s why it means it today. It means just what all those people North of the Red River accuse us of thinking it means. It means there’s no mountain that we can’t climb. It means that we can swim the Gulf in the winter. It means that Earl Campbell ran harder and Houston is bigger and Dallas is richer and Alpine is hotter and Stevie Ray was smoother and God vacations in Texas.
It’s actually by someone named Bob Wheeler, from a 2003 self-published book. But the fact that so many Texans want to think it’s by Bum Phillips certainly says something about Texans and Bum Phillips.
One last note, from the TM archives: in 2009, the coach reminisced about his favorite burger to John Spong.
You can’t get the burger anymore, but for Bum, it was not really about the avocado, cheese and bacon:
When I was coaching the Oilers, we used to go to a place in Rosenberg that put avocado, cheese, and bacon on its burgers, and that was pretty good. It was near where I kept my cutting horses, on FM 359. It was called Friends, which was the right name for it, because that’s what the people there were, friends. A fast-food place just fixes a burger; they just want to sell it to you. Friends wanted you to enjoy it. So we went all the time, and we took anybody who we were close with: Dan Pastorini, Kenny Stabler. They had steaks and everything else you could want, but I wanted a hamburger.